HOLLYWOOD—You really have to have courage to do a gangster movie. Classics like “The Godfather” and “Goodfellas” loom so large over the genre that it casts a shadow on any project that treads similar ground. “Live By Night” tried, but script problems ultimately make it a forgettable and lackluster entry in the genre’s repertoire.
The plot follows Joe Coughlin (Ben Affleck), a stick-up man and outlaw in prohibition era Boston who becomes entangled with the mob. The somewhat complicated plot follows him to Florida as he takes over the illegal liquor business in Tampa, falls in love with the beautiful Graciela (Zoe Saldana), and fights off rivals and threats.
One of my favorite parts of the film were the amazing costumes. Costume designer Jacqueline West did a great job capturing the fashion of the era. I was also impressed by Jess Gonchor’s superb production design.
I have to mention that this movie has one of the best old time car chases I’ve seen. An example of the film’s great camerawork, the scene was the film’s most exciting and memorable.
The actors did a fine job. None of the performances equaled the best we’ve seen over the past few months, but that has less to do with them than issues with the story itself.
That is where the film really falls apart. The script badly needed editing. Way too much was packed into this film. Certain plotlines and characters seemed unnecessary and underdeveloped. There was a recurring problem with convenient plot twists. Every time there’s a problem, Joe seems to get out of it because some lucky piece of information or inexplicable action from a character gives him an out. This is pretty lazy writing, and I think the audience can sense life doesn’t just throw open doors for you like that.
The sheer number of things writer/director Ben Affleck wanted to discuss is a bit overwhelming. Crime of course, but also God, race, even the oppression of all underclass people in America. It’s as if he tried to capture everything that was going on in society at the time. The Ku Klux Klan, immigration, of course prohibition, the stock market collapse, even Hitler gets a mention at the end. He couldn’t do it, and in the end the film lost focus. These are all worthy topics to explore, but better to do a few well than many mediocre.
Character development was a huge problem. I was especially disappointed by the failure to develop the female characters. Both Graciela and Emma (Sienna Miller) are there mostly for the development of Joe’s character rather than being fully lived and developed in their own right. This is a flaw that wasted the actor’s talents and damaged the story.
There were other issues. Some of the mob stuff was hard to believe. Why were so many characters all too ready to work with their enemies? Wouldn’t there be revenge for some of the things that were done in the film? Would they really be so easily forgotten? There were a lot of monologues. Some not too bad, but others tried to be deep when they simply were banal.
I also feel the film didn’t show the consequences of a life of crime enough. It tried to tack on some tragedy at the end, but it felt like an obligatory endnote more than an emotional, perceptive statement.
Overall, the effort was flawed and unsuccessful. It compares more to minor entries in the gangster genre like “Road to Perdition” than to greats like “The Godfather.” A muddled, problematic script hobbled the whole enterprise. If you want to see a crime movie stay home and check out the far superior “Hell or High Water” instead.